Clippercard Brainstorm

On the way home tonight on the ferry discussion turned to Clippercard, the SF Bay Area’s NFC-based transit payment card, and some of the strange limitations it has. What followed was a collection of ideas for how to improve it, some quite practical and others less so.

Here’s a few of my favorite’s, and while I don’t expect the folks at Clippercard to implement any of these, it is fun to think about what could be done with a card like this.

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Micro Suspension Scooter

Our five year old started Kindergarten this autumn, and since his school is close enough to walk to, I had been planning to walk him every day (at least when it was dry, which is pretty much always in northern California these days). Dropping him off is not just a drop off though; instead they do a “morning read” session where parents are encouraged to stay and read to a group of kids. That was making it hard to get to the ferry on time, so I came up with a solution: the Micro Suspension scooter.


After a lot of online research, I concluded that the Micro Suspension scooter was going to work best for my commute. Additionally, my five year old could scoot it on the way to school with me walking, making his route to school a bit easier too. I was hoping to get it from Amazon, but at the time I purchased it they were not selling the suspension model (they are now). I bought it direct from Micro Kickboard, but oddly I cannot find it on their site any longer.

The Good

We’ve had it for several weeks now, and overall it has been working out really well. The kid loves riding it to school, with the handlebars lowered. When we arrive, I can fold it and carry it into his classroom for the morning read session; then, when it is time for parents to leave, I simply unfold it, raise the handlebars and scoot to the ferry terminal. That ride takes a little over half the time it took me to walk, so I arrive in plenty of time for the boat.

Once in San Francisco, it also reduces my time to get to the office by about as much. The final climb up Bryant St I walk, but the rest of my route I can scoot easily. It is also saving me a fortune since I can’t ride it and drink a Starbucks, so I am bypassing the Starbucks completely and just drinking the office coffee instead (sorry Howard; if it is any consolation, the coffee I drink at the office is normally Starbucks Verona).

The combination of the large wheels & the suspension makes light work of even the bumpy San Francisco sidewalks. While not as smooth as some of the early reviews I read, the suspension helps a lot over the worst of the bumps and does not impact the handling at all as far as I can tell. 

The Bad

There is nothing really bad about the scooter. The only things I would say that could be even slightly negative are: (a) the weight of the scooter, for when you need to carry it, (b) the brake.

The weight was not more than I expected up front, and the suspension model does incur extra weight that could be skipped easily by simply getting something like a Micro Black or White instead, but carrying it too far would be tiring. On & off the ferry, or into my kid’s classroom is not a problem.

The brakes issue might be caused by the long, steep downhill from my office to Embarcadero in SF. Riding down the hill I tend to have the brake partly on to regulate my speed, and that seems to be causing some uneven wear on the rear wheel:

I don’t think it is causing any problems right now, but I was not expecting the brake pad to cause such uneven wear for sure. 

Self Driving Cars

A while back it occurred to me that when my kids reach driving age, I might not have to teach them to drive because we might all be using self driving cars. There are very obvious benefits to that, not least of which is the improvement in safety. Too many people die in car accidents each year, and many of them are teens. Reducing those numbers would be a big step forward.

The flip side though is that while driving to & from work in heavy traffic is no fun at all, driving a roadster around a winding road, with the wind in your hair is an exhilarating experience that no self-driving car will ever be able to replace. In fact, I doubt we will even see self-driving roadsters. Most of the self driving vehicles I’ve seen so far have been more practical vehicle styles (with the possible exception of that Google one, which is just odd IMHO). My current car, while being a pretty long way from practical, puts a smile on my face every time I drive it on an open road (which is not often enough – it does around 2,000 miles a year max these days).

Extending that thought though, what happens to the premium super car companies? Does anybody believe there is a market for self driving Ferraris, Porsches or Lamborghinis? Will cars just become practical vehicles for getting from A to B?

While I suspect teaching either of kids to drive would be traumatic, part of me will be a little sad if my generation is the last one that learns to drive a car.

Tesla’s “True” Cost of Ownership

Last week Tesla Motors announced a new pseudo-lease program claiming a true cost of ownership of just $500/month. That would be considerably less than I am paying right now for a car that would be comparable to their mid range, but that low figure comes from the entry level model of course.

Unfortunately, their way of getting to that number is stretching the truth quite a bit, and the program they announced is not really a lease at all; just a relatively high interest rate car loan with a buy back guarantee. We'll get to that later though. First, I'd like go go through the calculator web site they presented to get to that figure of $500/month; I am going to use the mid range model though as I suspect that is a more realistic option (the low end model has serious range limitation as the price difference comes from cutting the battery capacity).

Here is what they estimated as my monthly cost on that vehicle, after I removed the dubious business tax allowance, but leaving the high monthly mileage and average gas price in place:

Quite a lot more than the $500/month, and quite a lot more than I am paying now.

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Ferry Gets Half-Baked Clipper Support

The recent addition of Clipper card readers at the ferry terminals in Alameda and SF looked like at long last the ferry service was going to get Clipper support so books of paper tickets would no longer be needed. And so it is, on October 1st.

Unfortunately, as with many aspects of the SF Bay area public transit system, those in charge of planning the addition of Clipper apparently don't use the service at all, or even listen to people who do.

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For those not living in the San Francisco area, BART is a regional train service here that connects many of the East Bay cities with San Francisco and the cities on the SF peninsula down as far as the international airport (although connecting to the airport was something of an afterthought that was only added in the time I’ve been living here).

With the ending of the shuttle I was taking from SF to San Bruno, where Devicescape‘s headquarters is located, my only option from Embarcadero to San Bruno is BART. Now, over three months into that commute, I have some observations about BART that as an infrequent user I hadn’t really noticed all of.

OK, it would be a lie to say that I had not noticed the screeching BART trains make through the tunnels as an infrequent user of the service, but now I am on their trains for an hour each day (30 minutes each way), the screeching is unbelievable. I’ve never been on a train service anywhere else in the world that is so loud. Most of the time a conversation with the person sitting next to you is impossible. My noise canceling headphones only managed a small reduction in the noise level.

Choosing cloth carpets for a commuter train in a place where rain is not that uncommon has to rank up there as one of the most stupid decisions ever made. And now the cars have been in service for many years, those carpets are stained and disgusting. Granted, there are a few cars with new hard floors in use, but some of them are labeled as “demonstration” cars, and they are clearly getting old themselves, so unless the demonstration period was measured in decades, it looks as though no plan to upgrade the remaining cars was ever agreed upon.

Cloth seats were also perhaps not the best choice, but at least that is more common on trains that serve cities as far apart as BART does. The problem is that most train services clean them, or replace them when they become too soiled. Apparently not BART; frequently I see seats that are so badly stained I would rather stand than go near them. And that’s just what I can see. A recent report found all kinds of unpleasant stuff hiding in the BART seating.

No Food & Drink
Even more bizarre for a regional train service with journey times of 30 minutes to over an hour, food & drink is banned. They even interrupt useful next train information announcements with warnings about large fines for consuming food or drink on board.

Most train services are happy to have concession stands and/or vending machines within their stations selling food & drink because they get much needed revenue from such stands. Some train systems even have carts being pushed through the trains, or specific cars where food & drink is sold. Not BART.

The reason? They want to keep the trains clean. Clearly that’s not working. They’d be better off selling food & drink in the stations & actually cleaning the trains.

Inconsistent Announcements
I mentioned in the last section that the no food & drink announcements frequently cut off information announcements about the next train (sometimes even the one about the train currently at the station). It is not just the food & drink ones though. BART has a plethora of poor audio quality (often complete with office noise in the background) announcements that are played from the central control centre and will always override the station specific train information.

Bad announcements are not just limited to the stations though. On board announcements are made by the operator. Some are really good at this, others not so good. Either way, it appears that there is no script for what should be said. I often catch a train in the mornings where the operator announces the destination station name at each stop – very disconcerting if you weren’t paying attention. Others give a little more detail, like “This is Daly City; Millbrae train,” which makes it much clearer.

BART frequently stops mid-tunnel, especially the evening trains for some reason, and once again the operator information varies from total silence to a clear reason. This sort of thing should be consistently clear.

Escalators & Ticket Barriers
Everybody understands that escalators & elevators break down, but not daily. Embarcadero station, it seems, has its escalators out of service more often than in service these days. Shopping malls manage to keep their escalators running most of the time, why is it so hard for BART?

Even more annoying, when the escalator is out of service, they chain them off, forcing everybody into the narrow staircase next to it. An escalator can still be used as stairs when it is not running, but it seems BART is unaware of this.

Delays on train services (at least outside of Japan) are not uncommon, but BART seems to have them more frequently than I would expect, and without reason. We will frequently stop between stations for minutes at a time with no more explanation than “there is a traffic jam ahead” (I kid not, that was an actual operator announcement from a few weeks ago).

Indicator Boards
Finally, the overhead indicator boards that are on each platform have 4 lines of text on them than could be used to continually advise about the time for the next train. Instead, BART has chosen to fill them with more of their pointless announcements most of the time, or have them all show just the current time (something I can get from my watch or cellphone).

There is enough space on these boards that they could easily reserve one or two lines for next train information all the time, and scroll their other messages in the other portion of the screen. The current usage of these displays is just another indication that BART management knows very little about running a train service.

Too Rough

Too RoughAs you can see from the photo, the weather out on the bay tonight was far too rough for the ferry service to be running. With rough seas like that, what captain would want to risk taking their high tech catamaran ferry out of the safety of its dock.

Seriously, tonight’s ferry services from San Francisco to Alameda/Oakland was canceled. The service website said this:

Due to extreme weather conditions, ferry service is canceled for the remainder of today.

Does it look that bad? And remember that they ran the boats quite happily through the worst of the weather this morning.

Bus Bridge

As a replacement for the commute ferries, a bus service was operating, but the bus carried around half the normal load of the evening ferries, and was timed to depart from the ferry building 10-15 minutes before the normal ferry departure time. If I was being cynical, I’d say that was by design to encourage people to use alternatives and lighten the load on the buses!

Ferry Terminal Sunset

Ferry Terminal SunsetStepping off the ferry this evening in Alameda, this was the view down the estuary back towards San Francisco! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the 20D with me, just the trusty Nokia N95, and while the shot is still beautiful, I have to admit it did not do the scene justice. Tomorrow, and perhaps for the rest of this week, I will carry the 20D with me too!

I actually have a few from last week when I took it, but still need to upload those. Watch for more sunset photos in the Flickr stream this week…

Old Blue

Old BlueThis was the boat home last night. Top speed: drifting forwards. Seems that Encinal sprung a leak yesterday afternoon (not good on a boat), so they brought out the replacements. Old Blue apparently is well named, and only just managed a gentle drifting speed across the bay to Alameda – taking roughly twice as long as Encinal.

This morning, her sister ship Oski did the first run, and Bay Monarch did the 7:15am run. That’s right: two ships needed to replace the Encinal. Even then, we got in to San Francisco so late that I’m here at Starbucks waiting for the 9am bus.